Sympathizers from across Japan Swell Ranks Protesting US Heliport Plan

December 6th, 2005 - by admin

Tadao Onaga / The Asahi Shimbun – 2005-12-06 00:27:36

NAGO, Okinawa Prefecture (December 5, 2005) — Kazuyuki Takahashi flew into Okinawa in September 2004, planning to stay for only two weeks. More than a year later, the 27-year-old from Osaka Prefecture is still here, in the fishing community of Henoko in Nago.

He is one of many young people to join a David-and-Goliath battle between local people and the government over plans to build a US military heliport off Henoko.

A few days after his arrival, Takahashi joined a group of local people and their supporters who paddled out to sea in canoes to block a government team preparing for drilling research for the project.

“Out there, I saw it, and couldn’t believe it,” Takahashi later wrote on his Web site. “How dare they destroy this beautiful sea?”

In October, Tokyo and Washington dropped their original plan to relocate functions of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan, also in Okinawa Prefecture.

Instead, the two governments agreed to build the heliport at Henoko point, jutting out into the sea from the US Marine Corps Camp Schwab.

What blocked the original government plan was persistent opposition by locals, who set up a tent village and staged a sit-in lasting more than 500 days.

The village opened April 19, 2004, in protest against the Naha Defense Facilities Administration Bureau’s request to start a research drilling operation.

Besides Henoko residents and local citizens groups, many other people came and joined the sit-in — union activists, environmentalists, students on a school trip and politicians.

Some of the protesters were from within Okinawa, and some were from outside, including those from abroad. Many are young people like Takahashi.

Some days, about 500 people huddled together, spilling out of the tents and crowding a nearby road. Some stayed for half an hour, some for one day and others for several weeks.

A running total of 40,000 to 50,000 people have participated, according to tent village members.

Takahashi lived in a prefabricated hut near the tent village. His conviction grew stronger every day. But a month after his arrival, Takahashi became aware that outside Okinawa, few people really cared about the issue. On the mainland, some people could not even read the kanji characters for Henoko.

Okinawa, which accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s land mass, hosts about three-quarters of US military facilities in the country.

The relocation of Air Station Futenma from heavily populated Ginowan is part of an effort to reduce the burden on the island prefecture, a plan agreed to by Washington and Tokyo in 1996. A year earlier, three US servicemen were arrested for raping an Okinawan schoolgirl. That incident triggered a huge protest movement.

In 1999, the governor of Okinawa and the mayor of Nago agreed to the relocation of the heliport functions to Henoko. But local citizens continued to oppose the plan because of concerns about environmental damage and noise pollution.

According to local citizens, there is one taboo word for those who came from outside Okinawa. That is ganbatte, meaning “do your best” or “stick it out.”

“The US base issue is a problem for the whole nation,” said Sakae Toyama, 65, secretary-general of a citizens peace group. “But ganbatte sounds as if those saying it were relinquishing their responsibility, since they cannot do anything themselves. “(Having put in this much effort,) in what way could we try harder?”

Still, many young people from outside Okinawa, like Takahashi, have been attracted to the movement. In his college days, Takahashi withdrew from other people and shut himself up in his home.

He was inspired to rejoin society by a surge in public opposition to the Iraq war. “I might be able to do something myself,” he thought, and he went to the US Consulate-General in Osaka. For two months he stood in front of the building holding an anti-war banner.

That experience opened his eyes to peace issues. “I am here not for Okinawa,” Takahashi says. “This is an issue that is related to myself.”

Nobuko Oroku is an Okinawan obaa (old lady) who has been involved in the protest movement at Henoko for the past nine years. Oroku, 85, has seen many young people like Takahashi, and she says with affection: “They are kind of ambivalent when they come. But in two to three months, by the time they leave here to go back to the mainland, all become fine, steady young men.”

Takahashi spent many nights on a scaffold the defense bureau had built in the sea, taking part in a 24-hour vigil to see if work on the heliport started.

On the tent village’s 502nd day in operation, people saw a remarkable sight. On Sept 2, with a typhoon approaching, the bureau removed all the scaffolding. On Sept. 14, they were further encouraged by the news that the offshore heliport plan may be reviewed.

But a month later, on Oct. 13, a quite different heliport plan emerged — again near Henoko. After a long tug of war, Tokyo and Washington finally hammered out an agreement to build the heliport at Henoko point, jutting out from Camp Schwab.

“I was filled with anger, impatience and worries at the same time,” Takahashi wrote on his Web site Oct. 27. “What could I do now?”

The withdrawal of the original government offshore plan is, in a sense, a “victory” for the tent village. But the new heliport, with an 1,800 meter runway on reclaimed land, will still be built in the neighborhood. The new plan will be formally adopted in the spring. Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine is against the new plan, calling for relocation outside the prefecture.

At the tent village, about 20 people still gather in the daytime, among them obaa Oroku.

“Mainland people are working hard for us,” she said. “We Okinawans must be better united.” Meanwhile, Takahashi has not yet decided when to leave.